At 45, He Vies With Women Half His Age, Seeking an Olympic First

At 45, He Vies With Women Half His Age, Seeking an Olympic First

As you watch the U.S. Artistic Swimming team practice for the Olympics — their bodies upside down, their legs scissoring in the air in perfect time, like frenzied offshore wind turbines — you will notice two things.

First, the sport is much harder, and possibly even more insane, than you thought. Second, in a discipline whose enthusiasm for homogeneity is reflected in its pre-2017 name, synchronized swimming, one of the athletes in the pool is very much not like the others.

His name is Bill May, and he is the only man on the team. A rule change in 2022 cleared the way for men to compete in the sport at this summer’s Paris Games. That means that this is May’s first and, realistically, last chance ever to fulfill his lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics. He is 45 years old.

There are 12 people on the team, but only eight, plus an alternate, will get to travel to Paris — a painful reality for such a close-knit group of people. On Saturday, the team will announce who made the final cut.

May is a towering figure in the sport, a breaker of barriers for more than three decades and a leader in the decades-long effort to open Olympic competition to men. But his fate this summer will rest not on his individual achievements or stature as an advocate, but on his ability to perform as one-eighth of a team of women half his age.

The impending decision hangs heavy over the team. Andrea Fuentes, the head coach, said she was so anxious about it that she was having trouble sleeping.

“I grew up being Bill’s fan, and we all know him as a pioneer in the sport,” she said. “And he’s such a great human being, not just as a swimmer but as a person. But you have to do what is best for the team.”

May is used to answering questions about the weight of this moment, and he is careful to maintain an air of appreciation and humility. “I’m nervous for myself,” he said during a break in the eight-hour practice at Park Pool, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, the other day. “But I’ve been in the sport for 35 years, and I’m so proud and grateful for everything it’s given me.”

A crazy-quilt mix of ballet, gymnastics, swimming and Esther Williams aquatic spectacle, synchronized swimming, as it was called, first made it to the Olympics in 1984. The glitzy swimsuits, exaggerated (waterproof) makeup, dramatic music and air of antic theatricality might conjure memories of Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, but artistic swimmers are superb athletes with the cardiovascular conditioning of sprinters and the flexibility of gymnasts.

They spend much of their time upside down, holding their breath and remaining afloat by rapidly sculling with their arms. They’re not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool, their underwater vision is fuzzy (goggles are forbidden in competition) and their routines are so precise and their configurations so compact that the slightest misstep can result in unpleasant collisions and kicks in the head. It’s not unusual for athletes to become concussed or to faint from the intensity. In 2022, the American artistic swimmer Anita Alvarez passed out and sank to the bottom of the pool after performing a solo routine at the world aquatics championships. Her coach, Fuentes, jumped in, fully clothed, and pulled her safely to the surface.

The seriousness of the pursuit was on full display on a recent Monday, when the athletes assembled at 6:30 a.m. for a set of vigorous stretches on land, culminating in splits that they held for more than a minute apiece. Then they slathered their faces with zinc-oxide diaper cream as protection from the California sun, put on their bathing suits — the women wore one-piece suits, May a tiny Speedo — and jumped into the 16-foot-deep water.

Except for a 30-minute break in an improvised hot tub, the athletes would spend most of the next 7 ½ hours in the pool. They were allotted a tiny corner; the rest was taken up by lap swimmers and, for a time, by members of the U.C.L.A. women’s varsity swimming team.

Fuentes cranked up the soundtrack to their routine, a mosaic of music and spoken words on the theme of “water,” and led them painstakingly through each element. They would perform a move, she would record it on her iPad and then, treading water using an “eggbeater” leg motion, the athletes would watch the replay, take instruction and do the whole thing again. It was rigorous and exhausting.

Except for a brief bathroom break, not once in the first five hours did May ever leave the water or take a rest by, say, hanging on to the side of the pool or standing on anything; he spent the downtime treading water and joking with his teammates. He is often the first to arrive and the last to leave, doing his daily abs workout, getting in some laps after practice, performing a special, twice-daily stretching ritual.

“His fitness is something else,” said Lara Teixeira, a team coach. “He’s such a driven person that whatever he puts in his mind, he goes for it.” Recovery is harder when you’re 45, she said, and injury is more of a risk. “He takes care of his whole health,” she said. “In some ways, he’s really his own coach.”

May’s story is so singular that it’s hard to see him as anything other than an anomaly, a person before his time. He grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., to a mother who was a teacher and a father who worked as a typesetter and security guard. A gymnast and competitive swimmer as a boy, he fell in love with artistic swimming at age 10, when he tagged along to his younger sister’s class.

“People often ask, ‘Why did you choose artistic swimming?’” May said. “I didn’t choose it. It was waiting for me. It chose me.”

His obsession felt so natural and his parents were so supportive that May didn’t dwell much on the differences between him and everyone else.

“I didn’t think you had to look a certain way,” he said. “I just knew that I loved the sport.” Once, when he was 14, the family of a girl he had defeated in an individual competition booed him, but mostly his gender wasn’t an issue. “They treated me like any other athlete,” he said.

He swam with a few upstate teams, including the Syracuse Synchro Cats and the Oswego Lakettes, until the coaches told him they had nothing left to teach him. At 16, May moved to California to train with the best coach in the country, Chris Carver of the Santa Clara Aquamaids.

Sending her teenage son to California was a wrenching decision for his mother, Sharon May. “I thought that if I did not let him go, I would lose him emotionally,” she said. “This was such an opportunity for him. How would he feel having a mother who wouldn’t let him do this? But inside, I was heartbroken.”

Carver immediately liked May — everyone likes May — and was impressed by how hard he pushed himself and how he remained enthusiastic no matter what. “I thought he was going to be wonderful,” she said. “First of all, he’s kind of unusual for a man in that he is so flexible. And he has nice feet and he’s strong, but he had a tremendous drive and was trying to improve himself. He’s very humble, very accepting of critiques and criticism and very easy to work with.”

May competed nationally as his reputation grew, racking up championships, but top international events remained closed to men. After training with the U.S. Olympic team in 2004 but cheering from the sidelines during the competition, in Athens, May retired from the sport at 25 and moved to Las Vegas. For the next 17 years, he performed in Cirque du Soleil’s aquatic spectacle, O, but remained an advocate for men and an ambassador for artistic swimming.

Then, in 2014, came the news that men would be able to compete in the world championships the following year in mixed duets, pairs of one man and one woman, as in figure skating. May came out of retirement to compete, and won two medals in two different routines with two different partners: the gold in the technical competition, with Christina Jones, and the silver in the free competition, with Kristina Lum-Underwood.

More medals followed in more worlds. A few years ago, May left Cirque du Soleil and became the head coach of the Aquamaids, now called Santa Clara Artistic Swimming. But the holy grail — the Olympics — remained elusive. The 2016 and 2020 games came and went: men were still ineligible to compete. That they are in 2024 is due in large part to May’s long, passionate campaign.

You have to be slightly crazy to love the sport, which offers little in the way of fame or remuneration — some athletes on the U.S. team earn less than $2,000 a month — and May loves it with every fiber of his being. The letters on his license plate are OCWAMAN, an homage to the Oswego County Water Authority in Syracuse and a fortuitous homonym he seized on because, he explained, “AQUAMAN was taken.”

No one is underplaying the odds against him. Though May has competed in (and won) many non-Olympic international championships in male-female duets, it has been 20 years since he competed on a larger team. The sport is more technically difficult and the judging more rigorous now.

He is ancient in athlete years, 28 years older than the youngest person on the team, 17-year-old Audrey Kwon. The assistant coach, Megan Abarca, has known him for 20 years — since she was 10, and May was her coach. A teammate, Natalia Vega, 25, was such a fan girl as a teenager that once she removed May’s duet partner’s face from a poster, replaced it with a photo of herself, and sent it to him with a note: “Can I be your duet partner?” (In fact, the two did later pair up, taking fourth place in the mixed duets at the world championships in 2019.)

May made the U.S. team a year ago, as soon as it opened to men, bringing with him maturity, self-discipline and an endlessly sunny disposition. When he’s in a pool full of nose-plug-and-goggle-wearing swimmers practicing the same routines all day, six days a week, he seems like just another athlete, his teammates say.

Obviously there are differences, such as the way that practice ends with everyone traipsing into the same locker room — except May. And of course he grew up a generation before his teammates.

“I’ve never been made to feel old except when we talk about movies or music or things that used to be around, like different foods and candies,” he said. When he mentioned “The Breakfast Club,” no one knew what he was talking about. “Probably none of them have ever seen a phone booth,” he said.

Being a man doesn’t necessarily provide an advantage in artistic swimming, which requires flexibility as well as endurance. But men have helped move the sport in exciting directions with complementary skills that help enhance its athleticism and power, said Lisa Schott, the technical and artistic swimming chair at World Aquatics, the sport’s governing body.

Schott, who called May “an icon and a role model,” dreams of a time when men and women will regularly compete on teams together. Equality works both ways, she said: “World Aquatics is about gender inclusion, and we want and welcome men in the sport.”

In one of the ironies in a situation full of them, May appears to be the only male artistic swimmer left standing (or swimming, as the case may be) from any Olympics-bound team. Most countries have no men currently swimming at anything near his level in team competitions. The top male artistic swimmer in mixed duets in the world, 28-year-old Giorgio Minisini of Italy, was recently denied a place on the Italian Olympic team.

“It would be devastating not to make the Olympic team — that maybe I could have done something different, or worked harder,” May said.

“But even beyond that, my biggest fear is not to see a male presence at the Olympics,” he added. “To finally have the opportunity to introduce men into the Olympic Games, to know that the sport is finally inclusive, but not to see that representation — it’s almost like a slap in the face.”

Schott said that May had already changed the sport by ushering in a new generation of men like Kenny Gaudet in the U.S. and Ranjuo Tomblin of Britain who are now rising through the ranks.

“As the sport evolves, becoming faster, stronger and more athletic, we’ll have mixed teams,” she said. “The only question is, what will we have at this Olympics?”

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